Trail Runners Embody the “Pioneer Spirit” at USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships

Written by USATF Championship liaison Meghan Laws. Photos by Meghan Laws.

Editor’s Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, upcoming USA Track & Field Mountain, Ultra and Trail Championships may be cancelled or postponed. For the status of upcoming championships, please contact the race director and USATF’s COVID-19 web page.

Many forces were in play to thwart the spirits and the participation of the Pioneer Spirit Trail 50 Mile Race – besides dealing with the unease around social gatherings and the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the weather was dealing up stormy weather, making Californians pay for the spring-like weather they had been blessed with all of February.

Nonetheless, at 6:00 am there were 89 brave souls toeing the line in the dark on a cold, wet morning in the small town of Cool. These intrepid runners would travel on foot through old homestead lands, to the iconic Western States Trail, up to the town of Auburn, and then on the Pioneer Express trail running along the American River to Folsom Lake.

With the event being a championship race, the field was competitive. From the early stages in the race, the women began to sort themselves out, with Utah’s Ashley Hawks and 2017 champion Anna Zieleski taking charge early on. By mile 9 they were in lock step, followed by Olivia Amber and Sunduk Kim. This order remained all the way up to mile 19, with the addition of 5th place Kalie Demerjian. These gals cruised down Western States Trail, and by the time they reached No Hands Bridge, Kalie had moved up to fourth.

Anna Zielaski and Ashley Hawks at mile 15.

Auburn is the 26 mile point, where Hawks now had put some distance on the field, with Zieleski 7 minutes back. In third was Demerjian, a minute ahead of Ambera. Sunduk Kim was holding on in fifth followed by local standout, Kenzie Macphail in sixth.

At mile 38, Hawks was still pulling away, and unfortunately Zielaski had dropped, leaving Demerjian in second, and in hot pursuit. Amber was maintaining 3rd, and Macphail had moved up to fourth, with Sunduk hanging on for fifth.

3rd place finisher Olivia Amber.

The victory was Hawk’s in a time of 8:31. When asked about her day, she modestly and calmly described how she just remained conservative and controlled, and that it was her very first 50 mile run, her husband getting her turned on to ultras just one year ago, having previously run track collegiately. She felt that at mile 40 it started getting tough, and like a true veteran, she threw up, felt better, and finished strong.

In just 3 short minutes, second-place finisher Demerjian crossed the line in 8:34, followed by Amber in 8:42, Macphail in 9:00, and Sunduk Kim in 9:01 to finish fifth overall and first master. Amy Phillips was sixth overall and first in the 44-49 age group timed in 10:03.

From left to right: Meghan Laws, Ashley Hawks, Kaile Demerjian, Oliva Amber, Kenzie Macphail, Sunduk Kim and Paulo Medina.

The men’s race was also something to behold, with top competitors from around the country toeing the line – Tim Tollefson, Max King, Kallin Khan, Matt Daniels to name a few. With the first 3 miles being in the dark it was hard to tell who was in the lead, but by mile 9 a group of 6 had gapped the rest of the field, with Christian Gering leading, followed by Matt Daniels, Tim Tollefson, Max King, Kallin Khan, and Steven Kool virtually together at the aid station. The miles seemingly flew under their feet, as by mile 19, that pack of 6 was now down to 5, Tollefson leading King, Daniels, Khan, and Gering. They tore down the Western States Trail to No Hands Bridge, covering 3.4 technical miles in 22 minutes.

At mile 26, the group started to splinter slightly, with Daniels leading the pack, followed by Tollefson, Khan, and King, all focused and quick through the aid station. It was a few minutes before Gering appeared.

Matt Daniels chases Kallin Khan at mile 26.

Rain and wind continued to pester the runners, and by mile 38, a somewhat weary Daniels hiked a short hill, followed closely by King in the same hands on knees approach, but on their heels was Tollefson, charging up the small grind, smiling through the misery. A few minutes later, a new player to the top 5 was local Luke Garten, with Gering close behind.

By mile 44.6 Tollefson had taken a commanding lead. He grabbed a little aid, and smelling the barn, took off in earnest. A short 2 minutes later, King arrived, asked about Tim, and was off on the hunt. There was much waiting in anticipation for Daniels, and he finally arrived, chilled to the bone, and ultimately unable to continue on due to hypothermia.

Tollefson extended his lead to the finish in a winning and course record time of 6:22! Max King, as incredible as ever now at the age of 40, was a mere 5 minutes back (6:27) in second place overal and first master. Khan held 3rd in 6:52, Gering in 4th in 6:56, and in 5th, Asher Catterall in 7:00. Garten also dropped at mile 44.6. The next age group winner was Jonah Backstrom (44-49) and 10th overall in 7:40. Ron Gutierrez won the 50-54 age group in 8:36, Jean Pommier was victorious in the 55-59 age group in 8:53, and Chuck Amital snagged the 60-64 age group win in 11:08.

Max King at mile 38.

When asked about his race and the conditions, Tollefson said he liked them as it forced him to really stay on top of his game, and accept the challenges. On his “sprint” to No Hands Bridge, his mindset was to turn the trigger on the guys and see what happens, as he loves that descent. After the midway point, he stopped to relieve himself, and from that point on for an hour, he didn’t see anyone in front of him which was mentally discouraged, but he finally caught back up and really had the fire.

With the weather being rather unfriendly, very few people were ever gathered in any one place, including the finish line, which was a good thing in light of the COVID-19 concerns. Race director Paulo Medina and his hardy volunteers worked hard to put together an amazing day for the athletes.

The top 9 male finishers Tim Tollefson, Max King, Kallin Kahn, Christian Gering, Asher Catteralll, Jacob Huston, Steven Kool, Matt Weickert and Adam Merry.

Women’s USATF Championship Results (excludes non-USATF members):

Men’s USATF Championship Results (excludes non-USATF members):

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including proper hygiene practices. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide.

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